consumerism current affairs food health

Swine flu – intensive farming strikes again

Swine flu has been the big story this week, as the world considers the possibility of a pandemic. Once again, it is a global problem of our own making. The outbreak began in Mexico, in a town called La Gloria. Smithfield, the world’s largest pork processor, has an enormous industrial pig farm there, raising and slaughtering a million animals a year.

These industrial units pack thousands of pigs into a small space, so if one animal gets sick it will be very likely to pass it along. Since the pigs are selectively bred for specific attributes (bigger back legs than front legs, because ham sells better than pork shoulder, small ears so they don’t get bitten off by uncomfortable, bored and aggressive neighbours, no tail for the same reason) they are essentially in-bred. Like any monoculture, weak genetic stock means there is no natural resilience to disease, and one infection will spread through the population like wildfire. Pigs kept in these conditions are “effectively living Petri dishes” for disease.

Viruses love this, as a Guardian article reports this morning. “With massive concentrations of farm animals within which to mutate, these new swine flu viruses in North America seem to be on an evolutionary fast track, jumping and reassorting between species at an unprecedented rate.”

Viruses aren’t the only health risk from intensive pork farming either. Last month Ecologist TV released a timely short documentary called ‘Sick as a pig‘, which addresses the equally serious problem of MRSA. The notorious ‘hospital super-bug’ is linked to the over-use of antibiotics in industrial farming – see the video below.

We knew that industrial pig farming was bad news for pigs. Turns out that, despite the low supermarket pork prices, its bad news for humans too.

So what can we do about it?

  • Eat less meat. This is about consumerism again, and our demand for cheap goods. Just as cheap clothes will be made in a sweatshop, cheap meat will have been industrially, unsustainably farmed. There is no two ways about it. Short-cutting on animal welfare and reliance on antibiotics is a disaster for all concerned, and we need to resist the cheap bacon.
  • Buy free range pork.  Free range, RSPCA Freedom Foods, or outdoor-reared pork is getting easier to find all the time, and given this week’s news, next year it will be even easier.
  • Enjoy pork more. Forget your tasteless minced pork and cheap sausages. Our standards are far too low, and so farmers and supermarkets get away with it. If you eat meat less, you can afford to buy better meat when you do. How about only buying meat when you’ve got time to cook it well, and savour and appreciate it?
  • Support Compassion in World Farming. Many people seem to consider animal charities to be a niche interest, for sentimental nature lovers who get upset at the thought of cooped up chickens. Animal welfare is important in its own right, but the way we treat animals also affects food quality, human health, water use, pollution, and climate change. Animal rights is one of many reasons that CIWF’s work matters.

More on meat:

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